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Is a Tip From a Confidential Informant (CI) Sufficient for Police to Make a Legal Drug Arrest?

It is not uncommon in Jacksonville, Florida or other areas in Florida for police to make a drug arrest based on a tip from someone commonly referred to as a Confidential Informant (CI). These tips can come from a variety of different people and can be anywhere from very general to very specific. Some CI’s are more reliable than others, and some of the tips are more thorough and accurate than others.

For instance, consider a case where a CI tells a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) officer he saw a man conduct a hand to hand drug transaction on a street corner in downtown Jacksonville, Florida. The CI is someone who has provided reliable information to the Jacksonville police officer in the past that resulted in drug arrests. The CI described the street corner, the clothes the man was wearing and said the drugs were in his left front pocket. The Jacksonville police officer then goes to that street corner, sees the man and makes an arrest. The police officer finds a bag of crack cocaine in his left front pocket.

Is this a valid drug arrest for possession of crack cocaine by the Jacksonville police officer? We would say no. The law says that a police officer must have a reasonable basis to stop a person for suspected drug or other criminal activity and must have probable cause of drug or other criminal activity prior to making an arrest. In situations involving a tip by a CI, two primary factors come into play. First, how reliable is the CI? Has he/she provided reliable tips that led to arrests in the past or are his/her tips often, or even sometimes, unreliable? In this case, the CI was apparently reliable with his tips. The second important factor is how specific and thorough the particular tip is. In this case, the tip was too general and did not provide enough information to allow the officer to just walk up to the man and make a drug arrest. The tip did not describe in any detail the activity that the CI considered a “hand to hand drug transaction.” How is the police officer, and later the judge, supposed to know that this CI can accurately detect a hand to hand drug transaction from some other type of hand to hand transaction? And how does anyone know at what angle and distance the CI observed the man and for how long? Additionally, the CI did not indicate the type of illegal drug involved, the packaging or anything else about the alleged transactions. Finally, when the polcie officer saw the man, he did not conduct any surveillance to confirm the tip nor did he know anything about the history of the alleged drug seller.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects everyone from illegal and unreasonable searches and seizures. When the search and seizure is based on a tip from a CI, there are usually issues regarding the reliability of the CI and the extent of the information provided to the police. These issues must be explored in any drug case with a potentially bad search to make sure the defendant’s Constitutional rights are protected.